Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Battle of the killer B´s

The letter b has always meant something special in music history. You've heard about the three Bs: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Or was it Berlioz? I prefer Brahms, so I stick with him. We can also add be-bop, booze and... bass guitar. Well, you get it. But who is best of the Bs? This has been the great debate among music historians for decades - even centuries.

I recently got introduced to a service called Topsy, named after the elephant who never forgets. Topsy harvests social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and tumbldr and indexes them. You can then search for any term, and the site gives you beautiful statistics and graphs. For trend analysts it must be marvelous. Drink of choice? Coca Cola: 25 million tweets. Coffee: 125 million tweets, barely more popular than tea at 103 million. Water: 185 million tweets. I go for water. 

So I asked Topsy who was the greatest composer, and this is what I got:
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms - the killer Bs
The winner is - Bach!

I was rather surprised to see that with 4 million tweets, Bach is more popular than Beethoven. The difference is not great, just a million tweets, give or take, but still not what I expected. I thought Beethoven to be the top star, the emperor of orchestral music, while Bach is just for church goers and connoisseurs. But Twitter proved me wrong, and I accept it. The real shock is poor Brahms. Only 387 K? What happened? The 4th symphony is one of the greatest orchestral works ever written. He's the best melodist on this side of Schubert. Give the man some credit! 

Well, well. Bach won. Join in on the celebration with this stunning video - Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations. Maybe the best classical performance to ever hit Youtube.

But, wait! There are more B's, aren't there? What if we throw in another one? We have the early 18th century B (Bach), the late 18th/early 19th century B (Beethoven) and the mid 19th century B (Brahms). But what about the 20th century? Who can we choose? Berg? Babbit? Berio? Brecht? Bernstein? Oh, ok. Let's put in the Beatles. They're as classic 20th century as you get. What happens?

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms & Beatles
Again, I accept it. I even admit it. I listen more to Beatles than the three other Bs put together. So it was to be expected, wastn't it?

Should we continue? What about the 21st century. Who is our B? Oh, no...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Post 1980 canon #9: Sound art

Sound art traces its history back to Dadaism, Kurt Scwhitters' Ursonate and the craziest of John Cage's ideas. But as a major art genre, it's a child of the 1980s and 1990s when first tape and then computer technology got so affordable that it could more easily be incorporated in an art work.

Wikipedia teaches us the following:
The earliest documented use of the term in the U.S. is from a catalogue for a show called "Sound/Art" at The Sculpture Center in New York City, created by William Hellerman in 1983.

The distinction between music and sound art has been the topic of many fruitless debates over the years. As a general rule of thumb, sound art is site specific - it is conceived for a specific place at a specific time, while music in its nature seeks to transcend time and place. A work of music seeks to exist outside place and time.

No sound examples this time, but I will use Arne Nordheim's Gilde på Gløshaugen (2000) as illustration in the lecture. The lecture will be site specific. It can only be experienced if you're there :)

Post 1980 canon #8: Noise. Merzbow and Lasse Marhaug

The conservatives just won the Norwegian elections, so what's better soundtrack for this mardi bleu than Noise? I have chosen Merzbow and Lasse Marhaug as examples.

Of all the technology driven new music forms of the 1990s, noise is one of the most difficult to frame.  Socio-historical context, musical form and technology shares many similarities with ambient, but where ambient is floating an subtle, noise is in your face, load and brutal. Noise is sort of the black metal of electronica, but played in an art gallery. Noise embodies the ideas from the now 100 year old futurist manifesto L'arte dei Rumori in its most extreme form.

Even if this is a kind of anti-aesthetic anti-hero music, the genre has its pioneers and stars. The biggest star and one of the founders of the genre is Merzbow from Japan. In noise music the "work" is more in the performance than in the composition. This is partly the reason for the enormous output from some of the noise musicians. Merzbow alone is credited on some 350 records (!). But then few stand out as more important or "better" than others. This video sums up many of the charateristics of noise: elitism, extremity, DIY, lo-fi and dedication to the art.

Noise is closely related to the art scene, and thus much of noise music has gotten a status very close to that of contemporary music. We have seen several examples of musicians crossing between the genres/spheres. In Norway Maja Ratkje, one of the noise pioneers, are now safely planted in the music establishment, and is also working as a more traditional composer. Lasse Marhaug, one of the huge names internationally, is today music director of Henie-Onstad art centre in Oslo.

The following video shows Marhaug in action, and can serve as example of a typical noise concert. Performers are often one single guy (few women here, with some notable exceptions) with a laptop or some home made electronics on a table, and an insane sound level. The music is often improvised, or following some loosely conceived plan.

In order to really experience this music you need to be present in person and feel the physicality of the sound. It's quite an experience.

Post 1980 canon #7: Acousmatic and soundscape - Smalley and Westerkamp

Following the tradition from musique concréte og Elektronishce Musik, the respectively French and German flavor of electronic music of the 1950s, purely loudspeaker based electronic music reemerged in the 1980s. A second generation of composers, many having studied with pioneers like Schaeffer or Stockhausen (but rarely both) redefined the genre. Where the original electronic music came out of the broadcasting studios, the new wave of electronic art music gained a foothold in the universities and academic institutions. And - for the first time this music gained a strong foothold in the UK. Trevor Wishart and Denis Smalley are among the great names of this second generation of what they now called acousmatic music, soundbased music for loudspeakers.

Personally I don't like the term "acousmatic" - it feels sort of exclusive (what does it mean?? Do I have to get into the whole Pythagoras/Schaeffer-thing?). I much more prefer "ear candy music." It is the ultimate high fidelity experience, especially when you hear it in a concert hall with good loudspeakers. Every time I hear this kind of music I'm puzzled that it is not more popular with the audio geeks. This should be the perfect music for an expensive multichannel HI-FI.

The music is closely related to ambient in technology and sonic character, but more worked through compositionally wise and demanding full attention. Where ambient is atmosphere, ear-candy-music is landscape. As an example of the genre I will present Denis Smalley's Wind Chimes, which he made in the GRM studio in Paris in 1987. As with many of Smalley's works it is a true classic in the genre.

As a sub genre of the acousmatic music, I must also mention soundscape, earcology or acoustic ecology. This is a form of acousmatic music which focuses on environmental sounds and sounds of nature. While acousmatic music often tend to manipulate their sound material beyond recognition, soundscape artists tend to keep their sound material untreated, or highly recognizable. The music is often linked with a strong identity of ecology, while the acousmatic is more focused on technology. While the icon of the acousmatic is the music studio, the icon of soundscape is nature - particularly water and forests. A brilliant example is Hildegard Westerkamp's Beneath the Forest Floor from 1991.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Post 1980 canon #6: New spectacle: John Adam's Nixon in China

Post 1980 canon #6: New spectacle - John Adam's opera Nixon in China (1987)

In the post WWII years most composers stopped writing operas, and the additions to the repertoire were few. For some reason this suddenly changed in the late 1980s. According to Paul Griffiths, the Metropolitan didn't premier a single new opera between the late 1960s and the late 1980s, but then suddenly they started commisioning new works on a regular basis. A similar history can be found in Houston Grand Opera, where Nixon in China was premiered. According to Wikipedia, the house opened in 1954 but didn't start premiering works before 1974. Until 1987 only 5 operas were premiered. But then suddenly the house start premiering one or two new operas every year! Texas were obviously a hot seat for opera in the 80s and 90s, staging the world premiere of Nixon in China in 1987, Phillips Glass' Planet 8 the following year, Meredith Monk's amazing Atlas in 1991 and several highlights from what can be called the new wave of grad opera. The productions were big and spectacular, but huge successes justified the costs. Themes were often based in contemporary politics or concerns, and here Nixon in China is a case in point, being based on Nixon's controversial 1972 visit to China. Nixon in China is also a brilliant example of the sustained influence of American minimalism.

The opening of the new Oslo opera house in 2008, with all its spectacular and gradiouse productions can be interpreted as a continuity of this trend. 

Post 1980 canon #5: Ambient: Biosphere's Substrata

Post 1980 canon #5: Ambient: Biosphere's Substrata.

Ambient doesn't start with Biosphere, of course. The really canonic work in this genre is Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports from 1978, but as a genre ambient was detracted by synth pop and EDM throughout the 1980s. In the 1990s ambient reemerged, and mysteriously Norway was one of the major actors. This is why I have chosen "Silence" from Biosphere's Substrata as example work. The album was released in 1997, and this coincides pretty well with my own discovery of ambient.

Ambient is interesting because it grew out of electronic pop music, but sees itself sort of as a prolongation of the tradition from the electroacoustic music of the 1950s and 1960s. It also draws heavily on John Cages writings on silence and environmental sounds and Steve Reich's process pieces like Drumming or Music for 18 Musicians. Biosphere's "Silence" can be interpreted as a direct allusion to Cage's influential book.

Ambient is also a very technology driven music. It emerged out of young kids playing around with early samplers and digital recording equipment, establishing what was in fact a completely new aesthetic. Long surfaces, ear candy sounds, slow movements. Atmosphere music. Very nice to listen to in a dark room alone.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Post 1980 canon #4: Postmodern zapping: John Zorn's Cat O' Nine Tails

Post 1980 canon #4: John Zorn's Cat O' Nine Tails (1988)

No one were more eclectic and embodying postmodernism than John Zorn, and no "classical" work were more postmodern than Zorn's string quartet Cat O' Nine Tails, written for the Kronos Quartet in 1988. Hearing the piece is like zapping on the TV, jumping from one thing to the other with no apparent connection between the parts. The piece is full of katzenjammer, jokes, film music snippets, cliches, contemporary music cliches, eerie beauty and poking fun. But the cat in the title is no fun at all - it's a nine tailed whip. So '90s! But mainly this piece is all about having fun with music.

Post 1980 canon #3: Kitsch and new age: The Piano

Post 1980 canon, part 3: Michael Nyman's music from The Piano

Kitsch is expressivity's worst enemy. In the music from the movie The Piano Michael Nyman crosses the border over to the dark side, but the piece is still canonic. This is one of the few "contemporary" piano pieces that has worked its way into the amateur repertoire.  You'll find youtube videos of this piece with several hundred thousand views. I heard tons of young girls stumbling their way through this music in the 1990s. But is this an example of minimalism gone bad, musical new age, new romanticism, or just pretty music?

Michael Nyman de la pelicula EL PIANO from Cortos Chèveres 2 on Vimeo.

Post 1980 canon #2: Irony, simplicity, eclecticism: Louis Andriessen's M is for Man, Music and Mozart

Example number two of the post 1980 canon: Louis Andiressen's M is for Man, Music and Mozart (1991).

This piece is a part of Peter Greenaway's really really odd movie Not Mozart, commissioned to the 200 year anniversary for Mozart's death in 1991 (is that really something to celebrate?). The movie yells "so 90's!!" but music, choreography and scenography has qualities that transcend the somehow disturbing video effects.

Not Mozart by Peter Greenaway. See it!

This piece is a great example of the postmodern 1990s eclectic treatment of historical subjects, 1990s irony, simplicity and minimalism. The piece has a mixed identity: it is classical music (scored for brass, double bass and piano), and it is not classical music (because of the jazz singer and the lack of string section). It is funny and witty, but still serious. It is both grotesque and beautiful. And it is a very cool piece of music. The dancing (and the dancers) are great too.


Post 1980 canon #1: The composer-performer. Meredtih Monk and Laurie Anderson

Welcome to the first post of my attempt to establish a post 1980 contemporary music canon.

Meredith Monk (1942-)

One of the things that have been characterizing the last three decades of contemporary music is the composers-performers. There have off course been composer-performers before (from Chopin to John Cage), but traditionally the compositions these people have made were published with a general audience in mind. The music of for instance Meredith Monk is so linked to her own personal style that it is impossible to separate composition from performance. I am not saying that Monk invented this, but I think she can serve as a good example of this trend.

Monk also serves as example of the crossover artist, who exists very close to the popular-music-art-music divide. She has been releasing her music on ECM, but still keeps herself on the art-music-side.

As example work I have chosen Dolmen Music - one of the awesomest pieces of music to be conceived in the 20th century. I'm aware that the piece was composed in 1979, so technically it shouldn't get into my post-1980-canon. But since it wasn't released, and thus didn't make it's impact, before 1981, I will make an exception. Because this is just to great to let go.

Laurie Anderson (1946 -)

Laurie Anderson is placed just on the other side of the "popular-music-art-music-divide." In my head I imagine Laurie and Meredith waving at each other from a quite close distance. They're both women, both American, both inspired by minimalism and technology, and both performers redefining what you can do with the voice.

As example work, I have chosen O Superman (for Massenet) from her United States performance, who as a single actually reached #2 on the UK charts in 1982.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A contemporary music canon post 1980

Love it or hate it - most general music histories are centered on canonic works. As a music history teacher I need these canonic works for my survey courses. Of course I know that this imaginary museum of example works has made lots of damage on the musical repertoire. It has reduced history of music to a string of master works, overshadowing the complexities and wealth of music history. But we still need canons. They provide a common ground. They make it possible to discuss culture and provide the starting point for making comprehensive reflections on the past

For my music students at NTNU I want to discuss how we can construct a canon for the post 1980 era. Most general histories of music end their storytelling some 50, 70 or even 100 years ago. This year sees the centenary of Stravinskij's Rite of Spring, one of the last works to get into the permanent collection of the musical museum. But what about our recent past? What to include? What to exemplify? What has happened in music the last 33 years? 


First we need to put up some criteria.  When discussing canonization, I think (and I know I might be wrong) we have to consider the following: 

  1. The work has to be a part of the art music sphere - loosely encompassing labels like "contemporary" "experimental" or "avant-garde"
  2. The work has to be ground breaking in some sense (whatever that means)
  3. The work needs to have had a certain amount of cultural presence; been played a lot, sold a lot of records or have made some other kind of cultural impact
  4. The work must illustrate something larger than itself. It needs to fulfill a role as example of something
  5. It needs to bee good. There is no point in having a canonic work if it's not worth listening to
That's the five main criteria. In addition: 

  • it shouldn't be jazz
  • it shouldn't be heavy metal 
  • it shouldn't be rock or pop music (no Radiohead, sorry)
  • but certain forms of crossover is ok
In a series of blog posts following this one, I will in ho particular order present the following
  • Meredith Monk or Laurie Anderson, as examples of crossover artists, and composer-performers 
  • Louis Andriessen's M is for Man, Music & Mozart as example of 1990s postmodern irony, eclecticism and new simplicity
  • Michael Newman's The Sacrifice as example of 1990s kitsch, new age and minimalism 
  • Biosphere's Substrata as example of ambient  
  • Kim Hiortøy's Hei as example of 1990s naivism
  • Lasse Marhaug or Merzbow as example of noise 
  • Maja Ratkje's Voice as example of electronic improvisation
  • Natasha Barret, Dennis Smalley or Trevor Wishart as examples of acousmatic music
  • John Adam's Nixon in China as example of 1980s opera and "new spectacle" big productions
  • Hildegard Westerkampf as example of soundscape
  • Arne Nordheim's Dråpen as example of sound installations and sound art

The list is by no means comprehensive. The Norwegian focus is of course prominent. And more importantly - it is heavily biased by my personal taste. That's how it is, and it will be my starting point for discussing canonization. I'd be very happy if you disagree. I'd also be very happy for suggestions, corrections, additions or general comments. I'll be watching the following hashtag on Twitter: #post1980canon 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Some thoughts on Digital Humanities

Do we see a similar type of shift in the humanities as what happened in engineering and science in the 1960s?

We've been living in the digital world for a while. Computers have been around for more than 60 years, and they've been rather present in our everyday surroundings for the last 30. Even the Internet as we know it dates back 20 years. Still we talk about new digital tools and new media. We aslo still find people that are intimidated by digital technology. Personally I find this odd. Computers are neither something new, nor much to be afraid of.

As I´ve been talking about before, the introduction of computers in science and engineering was one of the major shifts of the 20th century. It wasn´t just a quantitative shift (more calculations and faster number processing), it was a quatitaive leap. It made possible new types of questions and new ways of thinking. It paved the way for entirely new fields and new ways of doing engineering and science. It defined a new era. The finite element method revoultionized construction. Logging and analyzing huge chunks of data revolutionized science. And so on and so on, ad. lib. All the bigger Norwegian research institutions had access to computer centres by 1965. (By the way: the "Oracle service" - the NTNU computer service just turned 50 years).

We humanists have been a bit more reserved. We waited until the computer got personal in the early 1980s, embraced the word processor, but basically kept it at that. Digital tools were never the same game changer as it was for science and engineering. Until recently.

The #UMEDH crowd, by @finnarne

I might be digital historian.

I´d never heard the label digital historian before I decided to take this course on digital humanities at the University of Umeå HUMlab. Yet it makes sense. I might even be a digital historian. I use digital tools (online archives, libraries, etc.). I do music analyses using tools like Acousmographe and iZotope RX. I use digital presentation techniques. I organize my workflow with useful tools like Mendeley, Evernote and Dropbox. I maintain an online prescence. I've been in and out (or maybe "more out than in"?) of the blogosphere since 2006. I sort of breathe the digital lifestyle. But it´s not just about that.

There are certain toys, tools and approaches around now that, as far as I understand, are representing something qualitatively new in the humanities. Things like big data analysis, textometry (so new a concept that it doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry!), and various forms of graphical representation. What am I talking about? Let's get into the "course note section" of this blog posts.

Big data analysis, textometry and visualizations

Big data analysis and text mining must be pretty awesome for contemporary history. There are numbers of methods to get data out of services like Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc. An example of how it can be used: The Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation made a touching web-exhibit of tweets made during the terror of 22nd of July 2010 in Norway. This type of research makes it possible to ask entirely new forms of questions on how people react minute by minute to certain events. It preserves the confusion, fear and immediacy of the events as they unfold like no other historical source can.

Simon Lindgren demonstrated a way to do textometric analysis on texts, using methods adapted from biliometry and linguistics (a rather odd tutorial video makes the point: Lindgren was also talking about distant reading as opposed to the close reading we often do in the humanities. He also tales about textometrics a method oscillating between a qualitative and a quantitative approach.

We've also been looking a lot at visualization of data and research. This post from Stanford gives an introduction to some of the wondrous things you can do with maps and representation of spatial history. This map of travel conditions in ancient Rome is also just totally awesome. How fast to get from Rome to Constantinople on a heavy loaded mule? 22,7 days, if you're lucky and you get the boat from Heracleum to Ichtys. But this isn't just about presentation, it also influences the questions you can ask.


The big question

The big question then is of course: How do these tools shape the kind of history that we write? Do they make us do new types of research, better types of research, or just more expensive types of reserach? Do they make good history? The short answer is, of course: Not automatically.

I think one of the great things with the digital tools is that you can utilize data that previously haven been used (from tweets to positions in ship logs). But I guess it also is like with everything new - it could also serve as something flashy trying to mask bad research questions. But in general I'm positive.

The best, as it looks like for me, is that Digital Humanities seems to foster interdisciplinary work and team work. It's difficult to start an big digital history endeavor on your own, it's just too time consuming. There are way to little collaborative projects in the humanities. This might be something we really could benefit from.